Mr. Chairman – Willie Simmons – A proven leader, learning early in life on a farm in Utica, Mississippi

Commissioner Simmons with a map featuring the “west corridor” connecting Beale Street in Memphis with Bourbon Street in New Orleans. PHOTO BY CHRIS YOUNG

By Christopher Young,
Contributing Writer,

As a proven leader, Commissioner Willie Simmons has a rich history that began on a farm in Utica, Mississippi. Sitting with him in his office on N. West Street in Jackson March 7, 2024, was a unique and enlightening experience. Simmons, a walking encyclopedia of transportation knowledge in Mississippi and beyond, commands an impressive understanding of dates, times, goals, people, highway routes, needs and processes. His expertise exceeds what one might typically expect from someone in his role.
Freshly reelected with over 55% of the vote, the Department of Transportation Central District benefits from his experienced leadership.
Notably, his colleagues from the Northern and Southern Districts, both Republican and Caucasian, unanimously elected Simmons as chairman of the Transportation Commission. He is among the 6% of African-American agency heads in Mississippi, a state where the non-white population exceeds 40%.
The Mississippi Transportation Commission, as explained by Simmons, is vested with oversight of the state’s transportation resources and operations. This three-member elected body represents three geographic areas as defined by the Supreme Court Districts: Northern, Central and Southern. The commissioners are responsible for supervising all transportation modes, including aeronautics, highways, ports, public transit and railroads. They are charged with planning, developing and coordinating a comprehensive, balanced intermodal transportation policy for the state. The commission members select their chairman, and an executive director of the Mississippi Department of Transportation (MDOT) is appointed to manage the agency’s day-to-day operations. Simmons described the process of appointing the MDOT chairman as straightforward, involving a meeting and vote among the three commissioners. (Read more details at MDOT’s website.)
Statewide, MDOT oversees 29,265 highway miles, 5,812 bridges and structures, 82 airports (8 commercial and 74 public), 61 public transit provider routes and 16 public-owned river and seaports.
In his role, Simmons specifically oversees 22 counties with a population of about 1 million residents.
The MDOT’s budget for this year stands at approximately $1.4 billion.
Simmons’ educational journey includes Hinds County Agricultural High School, Utica Junior College and Alcorn State University. Initially a school teacher during the 1960s, he was drafted into the United States Army and proudly served as a combat veteran in the Vietnam War. Post-military service, he married Rose Sibley Simmons, his wife of fifty-two years, with whom he lives in Cleveland, Mississippi. They have four children – Avery, Christopher, Reginald, Sarita – and ten grandchildren.
His political career spans over 26 years (1993-2020) in the Mississippi State Senate, where he served as chairman of the Senate Highways and Transportation Committee during the last eight years. His tenure saw over $5 billion spent on the state’s transportation infrastructure, including roads, bridges, public transit, ports, railroads, airports and other systems. He also held roles as chairman of the Corrections Committee and vice chairman of the Public Health and Welfare Committee.
Before his Senate tenure, Simmons spent seventeen years in the Department of Corrections, rising to deputy commissioner. He furthered his education during this period, earning a Master of Science in Guidance and Counseling and an Education Specialist degree in Counseling and Administration from Delta State University.
Simmons emphasizes the importance of education, standards and accountability. His life experiences, particularly growing up on a farm in Utica, have shaped his approach to collaboration and problem-solving. He recalls observing the cooperative efforts of his father and other sharecropping family heads, which now informs his work as a commissioner. He prides himself on networking and collaborating with his fellow commissioners and staff, which has fostered a supportive environment for his vision and goals for the Central District. This collaborative approach has led to recognition in the legislature and Washington as a model for transcending partisan politics in infrastructure development.
On the topic of minority contracting, Simmons acknowledges MDOT’s 2% participation rate in FY2022 and is committed to improving it. The agency’s civil rights division and the Disadvantaged Business Enterprise (DBE) Supportive Services program, in partnership with Systems Consultants Associates, Inc., are integral to these efforts. More information on these initiatives is available at
To address any questions or concerns, Commissioner Willie Simmons’ office can be reached at (601) 359-7035.

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